Since Donald Trump was elected president, some news outlets have speculated how his presidency could affect cities with police consent decrees, like New Orleans.
The Marshall Project published one of the better-reported stories about this, as did The Washington Post. They acknowledge that we don’t yet know what to expect.
Cities such as New Orleans have agreed to reform their police departments due to lawsuits alleging unconstitutional policing. The agreements, which are enforced by judges, are typically in place for years as departments make good on their promises.
New Orleans is actually under two of these agreements, called consent decrees: one for the Police Department and another for the Sheriff’s Office, which runs the city jail. These agreements outline how they’ll end brutality and discrimination and come into compliance with the U.S. Constitution.
The U.S. Department of Justice is a plaintiff in both federal lawsuits. The Justice Department is directed by the U.S. Attorney General. And hey, we’re about to get a new one of those.
Under the Obama administration, the Justice Department aggressively targeted civil rights violations in local law enforcement. The Marshall Project reported last week that the Obama administration entered into 11 consent decrees with law enforcement agencies, compared to three under President George W. Bush.
Our next president has portrayed himself as a “law and order” candidate. Trump supported the NYPD’s aggressive “stop and frisk” program, which was found unconstitutional in 2013 for disproportionately targeting black and Hispanic New Yorkers. He was also endorsed by the country’s largest police union.
As the Post reported, Trump has said he’s opposed to the federal government collecting data on how local law enforcement uses force against civilians. In New Orleans, the Justice Department is already getting much of that information through the consent decree.
Jonathan Aronie, who leads the team that’s monitoring the department’s compliance with the consent decree, said he doesn’t think it will be affected by the incoming administration. He was in federal court Thursday for a quarterly hearing.
Aronie said he believes U.S. District Court Judge Susie Morgan, who is presiding over the case, supports the reforms as written. “Judge Morgan is committed,” he said.
When Trump takes office, Aronie said, he will be “extra-vigilant” in overseeing progress on some issues, such as the NOPD’s new immigration policy, increased transparency and community policing.
Policing immigration policy
One thing we’re watching is how a Trump presidency could affect the NOPD’s immigration policy, which we’ve covered in the past.
Trump campaigned on tough immigration enforcement, promising to build a wall between the United States and Mexico and deploy a “deportation force” to remove 11 million people living in the country illegally. He has since indicated that he may scale those plans back to 2 or 3 million people.
The NOPD’s consent decree mandates “bias-free policing.” This year, at the urging of civil rights and immigrants’ rights groups, the department implemented a policy that prevents officers from asking people about their immigration status or detaining them because of it. Officers aren’t allowed to assist federal agents in immigration raids.
Being in the country illegally is a civil violation, not a crime, as New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, a Trump surrogate, has acknowledged.
Marjorie Esman, director of the ACLU of Louisiana, said her organization supports the NOPD policy.
“We will continue to oppose local law enforcement getting involved in immigration activities,” she said. “The thing that people have to remember is that public safety is what the NOPD should be involved in.”
She said police are charged with protecting and working with victims and witnesses, regardless of their immigration status.
In the 2011 report that led to the NOPD consent decree, Justice Department investigators detailed complaints of officers stopping people “for unknown reasons or for minor offenses that would not ordinarily merit police attention.” Those officers would then ask people about their immigration status.
That led to a belief within the Latino community “that reporting crime to NOPD may subject the reporter to unwanted attention or harassment,” the Justice Department wrote.
The first version of the new NOPD policy said officers couldn’t share information with immigration officials unless an arrestee gave written permission or it was required by law. But the Justice Department’s Office of Inspector General said that policy violated federal law, which says no government agency can prohibit its employees from disclosing immigration information to federal officials.
That shaped the current policy, which allows officers to share and receive information about an arrestee’s immigration status, but keeps them from enforcing immigration law.
Will cities be penalized for not aiding immigration enforcement?
Trump has threatened to cut off federal funding to so-called “sanctuary cities” that don’t participate in immigration enforcement. Several big-city mayors have said they still would not comply.
U.S. senators Ted Cruz (R-Texas) and Jeff Sessions (R-Alabama), both considered candidates for attorney general, have pushed legislation to ban federal funds for “sanctuary cities.”
Another top candidate for attorney general, U.S. Rep. Trey Gowdy (R-South Carolina), is on record opposing the NOPD immigration policy. In a September hearing, titled “New Orleans: How the Crescent City Became a Sanctuary City,” Gowdy said the policy flouts federal law.
He said the Justice Department is aiding local governments “in the failure to enforce the law.” Federal agencies’ approval of the policy, he said, is “mind-numbingly antithetical to the faithful execution of the law.”
Tuesday, Breitbart News published a story headlined, “New Orleans PD Won’t End ‘Sanctuary City’ Policies.” I wondered if the NOPD is planning to flout the Trump administration as well.
The story reported that the NOPD “will continue ‘sanctuary city’ policies that protect illegal immigrants from deportation despite stricter immigration policies at the forefront of President-Elect Donald Trump’s incoming administration.”
I asked NOPD spokesman Tyler Gamble what he had told the Breitbart reporter. He said the reporter asked him if the department plans to keep the policy in place when Trump takes office.
Gamble said he pointed the reporter to the NOPD’s policies and noted that this one in particular was approved by the people overseeing the consent decree, a federal judge and the Justice Department.
I get as frustrated as any reporter when government officials don’t directly answer my questions, but that doesn’t mean I can fill in the blanks with whatever I want. Gamble can’t answer the reporter’s question because nobody in city government can decide whether the policy will stand — not without the input of the Justice Department and the team keeping tabs on the reforms. That’s what happens when you’re under a consent decree.
“New Orleans is obligated under court order to do certain things,” Esman said. “The city of New Orleans would be in contempt of court if it violated that order.”
It can take months or years for the Justice Department and the monitoring team to sign off on changes to the Police Department’s policies. Trump, you may remember, was elected just last week.
This story was updated with comments from Jonathan Aronie. (Nov. 17, 2016)